By JAMES TRAUB
Can Hezbollah be disarmed? The United Nations Security Council, the major Western powers and the government of Lebanon have all called for the Shiite militia to be shorn of its weapons. But how? And by whom? When it approved the terms of the cease-fire on Aug. 16, the Lebanese cabinet stipulated that its army would not take Hezbollah’s weapons away. United Nations officials have said that the international force that is to join the Lebanese Army in southern Lebanon would not do so, either. And militia leaders insist that they will not voluntarily lay down their arms. That doesn’t leave too many options, does it? And yet if Hezbollah is not disarmed, all of the appalling destruction that Israel visited upon Lebanon and suffered in its own territory may have accomplished nothing, and the bloodshed just concluded may be only the prelude to something yet worse.
“Disarmament,” like “peacekeeping,” is a confident-sounding coinage for an improbable activity. The murkiness of the language governing the conflict in Lebanon is, in fact, endemic to the activity itself. What does it mean to disarm? Is it a reflexive verb — a thing you agree to do to yourself? Or is it a thing done to you?
Victors in war, of course, forcibly disarm the losers — as the Allies did to the Germans and Japanese after World War II and as the United States did to the defeated Iraqi Army in 2003. But in a war that ends without decisive victory, or in civil conflicts, forcible disarmament is often impossible. The fighting force must more or less agree to disarm itself.
And disarming is the easiest part. Fighters who yield up their weapons must then be demobilized, meaning not only that they have to be mustered out but also that the organization’s command-and-control structure must be eliminated. And then, perhaps most crucially of all, as the Bush administration discovered to its pain in Iraq, those soldiers must be reintegrated into civilian society, or into the national army, so that the rewards, or at least potential rewards, of peace outweigh those of violence. Professionals thus refer to the entire activity as disarmament, demobilization and reintegration, or D.D.R.
Disarmament, like peacekeeping itself, offers a set of time-tested, codified practices that are quite effective under certain political conditions and futile in their absence. In 2000, I visited the dusty town of Port Loko, in Sierra Leone, to see a “disarmament camp,” a desultory affair in which a knot of surly ex-rebels from a murderous force known as the Revolutionary United Front hung around waiting for $300 payments meant to enable their fresh start as farmers. Most of them still wanted to fight, and many probably returned to the bush. But then their leader was arrested, U.N. peacekeepers equipped with heavy weapons were deployed in the countryside and the R.U.F. signed a peace deal. D.D.R. resumed in earnest in 2001, the R.U.F. disbanded the following year, and by 2004 the rebels had been fully disarmed. U.N. peacekeepers were able to leave. Sierra Leone is now patrolled by its own army and police force, though the country’s desperate poverty and political fragility could tip it back into warfare at any time.
Kosovo provides another more-or-less-happy disarmament situation. After a relentless NATO bombing campaign in 1999 compelled Serbian troops to withdraw from the province, a NATO force filled the vacuum. But the home-grown militia, the Kosovo Liberation Army, viewed itself as the true author of the victory and thus was in no mood to surrender its weapons. With the K.L.A., which was itself guilty of widespread ethnic cleansing, prepared to become a resistance force, or possibly a national mafia, peacekeeping officials made the audacious decision to enroll its members in an unarmed national guard, the Kosovo Protection Corps. And though in its early years the K.P.C. was found to be secretly stockpiling arms and was accused of serious human rights violations, the experiment has largely worked. The chief reason for its success is that K.P.C. members have not truly been demobilized; they have been permitted to keep their command structure intact and fully expect to become the nucleus of a national army when Kosovo gains its independence. There has been some talk of applying the Kosovo model to Hezbollah, by absorbing the militia either into the Lebanese Army or into a new national guard.
Kosovo and Sierra Leone worked not because peacekeepers got disarmament right but because the politics were right, or because the balance of force was favorable to peacekeepers. Otherwise, disarmament fails. In Congo, for example, aggressive and well-armed U.N. peacekeepers largely disarmed the ragtag militias in the northeastern region of Ituri (though owing to the government’s almost complete failure to prepare the ex-rebels for civilian life, violence has returned to the area). But equally determined peacekeeping troops made very little headway against the tougher and better-equipped force of Rwandan Hutus who have been wreaking havoc in eastern Congo since they fled across the border after the 1994 genocide. The Hutus agreed to return to Rwanda if they were allowed to organize as a political party, but President Paul Kagame flatly rejected the demand. The United Nations could thus neither intimidate the rebels nor offer them a better deal than the one they already had, pillaging the Congolese countryside.
What is true of the Rwandan force is true yet more of Hezbollah. Israel launched its air, land and sea attack on Lebanon with the goal, as Prime Minister Ehud Olmert put it, of “disarming this murderous organization”; in that regard, the campaign failed. How, then, could any lesser force succeed? Lebanon’s defense minister, Elias Murr, has defended Hezbollah and flatly asserted that the Lebanese Army “is not going to the south to strip Hezbollah of its weapons and do the work that Israel did not.” Neither will a U.N. peacekeeping force, however large. “You cannot impose peace on these people if they’re ready to fight you,” as a D.D.R. expert in the U.N.’s peacekeeping department puts it. “You need to be able to annihilate them, because they’re not going to lay down their arms voluntarily.” Even robust United Nations forces do not seek to annihilate their adversaries.
If Hezbollah cannot be forcibly disarmed, can some political arrangement induce the militia to disarm itself? This, of course, raises a question about Hezbollah’s aspirations: is it seeking to achieve through force a goal that can be attained through diplomacy, or through political activity? That this is in fact the case is the unspoken premise of United Nations Resolution 1559, passed in 2004, which sought to release Lebanon from the suffocating grip of Syria, and thus to begin a national dialogue that would ultimately lead to the incorporation of Hezbollah into Lebanese affairs.
Here you can look to a very different precedent: the voluntary disarmament in 2005 of the Irish Republican Army. Like Hezbollah, which has legislators and ministers in the Lebanese government, the hard-core Catholic resistance to British rule in Northern Ireland had a military wing, the I.R.A., and a civilian one, known as Sinn Fein. This was, for decades, a distinction without a difference, for the movement as a whole was committed to forcing out the British by calculated acts of violence. Starting in the early 1990’s, and then with increasing intensity with the election of Tony Blair as prime minister in 1997, the British government tried to induce the I.R.A. to lay down its arms by offering a political path to greater self-determination. Great attention was devoted to the mechanics of disarmament. In 1998, the British and Irish governments established the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning to oversee and verify the disarmament process. But the I.I.C.D. was able to do little so long as the tortuous negotiations over power sharing kept collapsing into acrimony and violence. The I.R.A. would declare a cease-fire amid great ceremony and optimism, then pull the plug with a spectacular act of violence.
Finally, after the terrorist attacks carried out by Islamic extremists on the London subway in July 2005, Blair made a series of gestures to the I.R.A., and the group responded by definitively vowing to cease all military activity. Fighters deposited rifles, machine guns, chemical explosives and even surface-to-air missiles at secret locations in the Republic of Ireland, with Catholic and Protestant clergymen brought in as witnesses. In September, the I.I.C.D. certified that “the I.R.A. has met its commitment to put all its arms beyond use.” (The group has, however, been accused of continuing to use violence for criminal, rather than political, ends.)
At the time, a columnist in The Times of London explained how the underlying dynamic had changed: “Sinn Fein was once the political wing of the I.R.A.; in the course of the past decade, the I.R.A. has become the paramilitary branch of Sinn Fein. A paramilitary organization can choose whether or not it has a political manifestation. A political organization in a Western democracy cannot, ultimately, choose whether or not it has a paramilitary offshoot.”
Should the parties to the violence in Lebanon work toward a similar demilitarization of the struggle with similar disarmament mechanics? Ben Zogby, the son of the Lebanese-American pollster John Zogby, recently made just this suggestion in The Huffington Post. Zogby proposed, as many others have, a political deal to grant Hezbollah its demands — a swap of prisoners, the withdrawal of Israeli troops from the disputed Shebaa Farms, “adequate representation of the politically disenfranchised Shia community” in Lebanon — all overseen by a new Commission on Decommissioning.
Certainly the I.R.A. precedent shows that even brutal paramilitary groups can ultimately be persuaded to lay down their arms. But it will prove relevant only if Hezbollah has demands that can be satisfied by a political process, so that over time its fighting force will dwindle into “the paramilitary branch” of its political wing, and former soldiers will accept reintegration into civilian life. Hezbollah does, in fact, aspire to gain “adequate representation” for Shiites inside Lebanon, as the I.R.A. did for Catholics in Northern Ireland. But this is scarcely its raison d’être. Hezbollah has used its weapons on Israel, not on the government of Lebanon; and it fights Israel with the professed goal of destroying it. If we take Hezbollah at its word, disarmament can come only in the wake of apocalyptic triumph.
Of course, just because you can’t see your way to a long-term solution doesn’t mean you dispense with short-term palliatives: what can’t be solved can often be postponed (a nostrum the Bush administration might wish it had invoked in the case of Iraq). The thousands of Lebanese and international troops who will be inserted between the combatants should provide at least an interval of calm. While the peacekeepers cannot disarm Hezbollah, their mandate requires them to prevent rearmament by blocking the militia’s Syrian supply routes. This, in turn, could persuade Israel to stay its hand. And diplomacy could then have time to lay solid foundations before the whole rickety structure gives way.
James Traub, a contributing writer, is the author of “The Best Intentions: Kofi Annan and the U.N. in the Era of American World Power,” due out in November.